Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer (Full Transcript)

This is a UFO shot from my house in Altadena, California, looking down over Pasadena. And if it looks a lot like a Buick hubcap, it’s because it is. You don’t even need Photoshop, you don’t need high-tech equipment, you don’t need computers. This was shot with a throwaway Kodak Instamatic camera. You just have somebody off on the side with a hubcap ready to go. Camera’s ready — that’s it.

So, although it’s possible that most of these things are fake or illusions or so on, and that some of them are real, it’s more likely that all of them are fake, like the crop circles.

On a more serious note, in all of science we’re looking for a balance between data and theory. In the case of Galileo, he had two problems when he turned his telescope to Saturn. First of all, there was no theory of planetary rings. Second of all, his data was grainy and fuzzy, and he couldn’t quite make out what he was looking at. So he wrote that he had seen — “I have observed that the furthest planet has three bodies.” And this is what he ended up concluding that he saw.

So without a theory of planetary rings and with only grainy data, you can’t have a good theory. It wasn’t solved until 1655.

This is Christiaan Huygens’s book in which he catalogs all the mistakes that people made in trying to figure out what was going on with Saturn. It wasn’t till Huygens had two things: He had a good theory of planetary rings and how the solar system operated, and he had better telescopic, more fine-grain data in which he could figure out that as the Earth is going around faster — according to Kepler’s Laws — than Saturn, then we catch up with it. And we see the angles of the rings at different angles there. And that, in fact, turns out to be true.

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The problem with having a theory is that your theory may be loaded with cognitive biases. So one of the problems of explaining why people believe weird things is that we have things, on a simple level, and then I’ll go to more serious ones. Like, we have a tendency to see faces.

This is the face on Mars. In 1976, where there was a whole movement to get NASA to photograph that area because people thought this was monumental architecture made by Martians. Well it turns out here’s the close-up of it from 2001. If you squint, you can still see the face. And when you’re squinting, what you are doing is you’re turning that from fine-grain to coarse-grain, so you’re reducing the quality of your data. And if I didn’t tell you what to look for, you’d still see the face, because we’re programmed by evolution to see faces. Faces are important for us socially.

And of course, happy faces, faces of all kinds are easy to see. You see the happy face on Mars, there.

If astronomers were frogs, perhaps they’d see Kermit the Frog. Do you see him there? Little froggy legs. Or if geologists were elephants?

Religious iconography, discovered by a Tennessee baker in 1996. He charged five bucks a head to come see the nun bun till he got a cease-and-desist from Mother Teresa’s lawyer.

Here’s Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Watsonville, just down the street, or is it up the street from here? Tree bark is particularly good because it’s nice and grainy, branchy, black-and-white splotchy and you can get the pattern-seeking — humans are pattern-seeking animals.

Here’s the Virgin Mary on the side of a glass window in Sao Paulo. Here’s the Virgin Mary made her appearance on a cheese sandwich — which I got to actually hold in a Las Vegas casino — of course, this being America. This casino paid $28,500 on eBay for the cheese sandwich.

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But who does it really look like? The Virgin Mary? It has that sort of puckered lips, 1940s-era look.

Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida. I actually went to see this one. There was a lot of people there. The faithful come in their wheelchairs and crutches, and so on. We went down and investigated. Just to give you a size, that’s Dawkins, me and The Amazing Randi, next to this two, two and a half story-sized image. All these candles, so many of thousands of candles people had lit in tribute to this. So we walked around the backside, to see what was going on. It turns out wherever there’s a sprinkler head and a palm tree, you get the effect. Here’s the Virgin Mary on the backside, which they started to wipe off. I guess you can only have one miracle per building.

So is it really a miracle of Mary, or is it a miracle of Marge?

And now I’m going to finish up with another example of this, with auditory illusions. There’s this film, “White Noise,” with Michael Keaton, about the dead talking back to us. By the way, the whole business of talking to the dead is not that big a deal. Anybody can do it, turns out. It’s getting the dead to talk back that’s the really hard part.

In this case, supposedly, these messages are hidden in electronic phenomena. There’s a ReverseSpeech.com web page where I downloaded this stuff. This is the most famous one of all of these. Here’s the forward version of the very famous song.

[Music with lyrics]

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now.

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